CENTER PUNCH

My first winter in Vermont we tried to make the soaring season last all year, a noble enough aspiration if you don’t mind knee-deep snow everywhere. It makes even the ordinary chores of preparing for flight too bothersome, but the main problem is snow on the runway. In December they plow it out past the lights, and push it well off each end so you can see those lights too. But where to put the stuff in January? Snowbanks grow after each storm, creeping inward, and eventually bury the lights under hardening ice.

By February the airport was unusable for sane pilots, but wave conditions were super and someone wanted to give it a try. I trooped out to the runway’s approach end with a rolled up aerial banner, paced the available width and laid the big red cylinder in the exact middle as an aim point. We would have about three or four feet of clearance on each wingtip.

(Now you’re thinking WAIT, nobody’s that dumb! So am I, today. But that was then. My good angel tried to intervene but her evil twin had his hand over her mouth. The muffled screams were only childish fear, I told myself. Besides, if this idea was as bad as it seemed, why was everyone else going along with it?)

The flight went okay, spectacular in fact, but cold enough to render feet and fingers utterly numb. Then on final approach I woke up crabbing bigtime into a gusty crosswind. That angle would widen our margin between the ice berms – if I stayed centered – but could not soften them if I didn’t.

As we bore down on our red cylinder (it looked like a dot from mid-final), I noticed the white center line was obscured by shifting scatters of loose snow… and only then fully recognized the danger. We needed to get stopped as soon as possible, but with too much wheel brake on a slick patch we might break loose and become an air-hockey puck…

If I didn’t nail this, seconds from RIGHT NOW the aircraft could be a total wreck…

Such realization tends to sharpen one’s vision. I postponed our inevitable weathervane to a stop only until the snowbank opened at a midfield taxiway. (If wind were from the other side we’d have been S-O-L.)

The peril I’d put my front-seater in, of slamming into an ice bank, left me ashamed and nauseated, but he seemed oblivious so I never mentioned it. Well before touchdown, though, I’d already learned that day’s lesson. Heeding it, and a thousand other monitions, is the only reason I’m still flying today!